Full disclosure: I have not finished Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch by the time of publishing this article. But I have played the game for over 15 hours and feel confident in accessing its strength and (very few) weaknesses.
Believe it or not, Ni no Kuni is the first time in a very long time that I’ve been interested in playing a Japanese role-playing game. I’ve dabbled in some of the earlier Final Fantasy titles, but I’ve never been particularly drawn to the genre. In recent years, it’s become ever harder to find time for JRPGs when I don’t have 60+ hours to dump into a game. Man, real life blows.
But Ni no Kuni is different. For starters, it’s a game developed by Level 5 Studios of Professor Layton fame, in collaboration with animation house Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro). Level 5 worked with Studio Ghibli for years perfecting the look of Ni no Kuni to resemble Ghilbi’s classic animation style. And it shows. Honestly, the first thing you notice about Ni no Kuni is how breathtakingly gorgeous the game is. Everything about it – the characters, the game world, the enemies, etcetera – look spectacular and jump right off your television screen. You might want to keep some eye drops nearby to water down your ocular units from time to time because you won’t want to take even a split-second to blink.
Furthermore, Level 5 did more than just emulate the look of a Studio Ghibli picture; they actually got the studio to do all the animation for the game’s cinematics. As expected, the moments when the game kicks into a cutscene, however brief, are truly a delight. They don’t come around too often, but when they do, it’s a magical experience that further brings to life this amazing universe Level 5 has created.
The story of Ni no Kuni is also something special. It revolves around a 13-year-old boy who loses his mother and gets whisked away to another world in the hopes that he can bring her back to life. It’s heavy stuff, especially for a game that looks as adorable as this, but it fits right in the wheelhouse of the subject matter Studio Ghibli loves to tackle in their films. Again, I have not finished the game’s story, as I hear it takes roughly 40 hours if you don’t do any side-quests whatsoever, so I can’t comment on if it sticks the landing or not, but I can say Ni no Kuni does play with some fantastic themes throughout the experience, like love, loss and how family matters more than everything. It's rare to come across a video game with such a unified thematic vision.
You can also read into the game further and draw some metatextual conclusions about the coping mechanisms of a young boy who uses his imagination to escape the harsh realities of real life. That could be me reading into things too much, but I still love that I can look at Ni no Kuni through that lens and it still holds up. It adds an extra layer of enjoyment to the title.
As far as how the game plays, if you’re familiar with classic JRPG tropes, then you will quickly realize Ni no Kuni steps right in line. The main complaint I have to log against the game is that it takes an excessively long time to get rolling – maybe 2-3 hours. It’s during these opening hours that you’re learning the ropes of the controls, world map navigation, inventory management, combat and how to sleep at an inn, and much more. You know, typical JPRG stuff. Luckily, the game’s characters and story setup make up for the excruciatingly long intro. You’ll want to see where this all goes, so you’ll put up with Level 5 keeping you on a very short leash for the game’s opening hours.
Ni no Kuni’s combat is also worth picking out from the crowd and talking about. It’s a combination of classic turn-based and real-time combat. You’re free to run around the battlefield to dodge attacks and collect HP/Mana that drops, but you still have to deal with attack cooldowns and the like. Add into the mix your companions, known as “Familiars,” which in a way resemble Pokémon, and you have a very diverse and exciting combat system to work with. It took me some time to get used to how things flowed, but once I did, I was in love with the eastern-meets-western development hybrid system.
Judging from what I’ve played of Ni no Kuni thus far, it’s a game I highly recommend, whether you’re a JRPG lover or someone who’s never even heard of that sub-genre of gaming. It’s just a title that shines from pretty much every angle. It plays well; it looks amazing; and the story tackles some subject matter I wish more games explored. The only hiccups are the game’s slow start and that you’ll be reading a lot of text dialogue (a pet peeve of mine). But for a game as massive as this, those are drops in a much larger bucket. The good far outweighs the bad, making Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch a must play.